30 October 2005

pentecost 24

Almighty God,
your servant Abraham obeyed your call,
rejoicing in your promise
that in him all the families of the earth
should be blessed.
Give us faith like his,
that in us your promises may be fulfilled;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

29 October 2005

CGO on the church and the poor

Over the past several days David Lumpkins, founder and chairman of an inner city Christian school, has posted a series of provocative and interesting reflections on the Common Grounds Online blog concerning the challenge of persistent patterns of poverty.

26 October 2005

peter rabbit remixed

Yesterday in the car, we were listening to a cassette of the classic children's tale, "Peter Rabbit" by Beatrix Potter. It's a sign of the decline of our culture - or at least my own personal decline - that every time I hear one page of the book in particular, this is what immediately comes to mind:


24 October 2005

evangelicals out of the box

Yesterday on the public radio program "Speaking of Faith," host Krista Tippett interviewed James K.A. Smith of Calvin College, professor of philosophy and author of several books exploring the intersection between evangelical Protestant faith and issues raised by postmodernity. Jamie's two most recent publications are his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy and his edited volume of papers from a conference held at Calvin, Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition. He is also a fellow-blogger with two blogs, Fors Clavigera and What I'm Reading, as well as making regular contributions to the multi-author blog Think Tank: Generous Orthodoxy in the Academy.

The interview with Jamie Smith - and a page of other information pertinent to new trends in evangelicalism, Radical Orthodoxy, and the emerging church - can be found at the "Speaking of Faith" website under the title "Evangelicals Out of the Box."

23 October 2005

pentecost 23

O God our redeemer,
you heard the cry of your people,
and sent your servant Moses
to lead them out of slavery.
Free us from the tyranny of sin and death,
and by the leading of your Spirit
bring us to our promised land;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

20 October 2005

o'donovan on tradition

Before dozing off at night, I've been picking up and reading Oliver O'Donovan's Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community (Eerdmans 2002). This is a relatively short book (only 72 pages) containing his 2001 Stob Lectures presented at Calvin College and Seminary. The three lectures, for all their brevity, nonetheless raise important issues and present helpful insights about community and shared identity from a theological perspective.

At one point O'Donovan begins discussing the importance of tradition in community formation. He suggests that tradition involves both a present activity of sharing, but also involves a possession of patterns and practices that have been received from the past and continue to be recognized. This is something rather different from "traditionalism," which attempts to start afresh with something that's fallen into disuse. There may be nothing wrong with that in various situations - some traditions ought to be revived - but such a retrieval is not, in itself, tradition.

O'Donovan goes on to gesture towards the command, "Honor your father and mother," noting that the law of Moses was directed to the adults of the community and thus this command is not first of all about the behavior of children. Rather, it is directed to adults, calling them to sustain and continue the process of cultural transmission of which they have been the beneficiaries from their own parents. I found this is an interesting observation (thought hardly novel, I suppose).

Of course one of the troubling things in the world, O'Donovan goes on to note, is that there "is more than one society, more than one set of social self-representations, and so more than one window on the world, each showing a somewhat different view" (36-7). This, however, gives rise to a difficulty: on one hand, truth makes exclusive claims and will not be contradicted; on the other hand, given that humanity is inherently social, the communication of truth cannot occur outside of a social context. In turn, this creates a further difficulty, forcing a society to act more urgently in maintaining its tradition in the face of competing visions of reality, while that very urgency betrays the fact that the tradition is not the "simple mediation of reality" that it claims to be (37-8).

This difficulty is one that is particularly pressing within modernity. O'Donovan writes:
Modernity especially, born of a lively rediscovery of the relativity of traditions, concealed its own transmission of tradition by a tradition of scorn for tradition, so providing itself with a cloak to hide the nakedness of its self-perpetuation - like an enlightened schoolmaster who sets the pupils the discipline of writing out a hundred times the sentence, "Never reproduce what someone else has dictated!" (38)
I thought that quotation was too good not to blog, summing up in a single vivid image, the condition of postmodernity, where the pupils have come to see the schoolmaster's dissimulation all too clearly.

O'Donovan goes on to note that theology provides its own perspective on this situation, "a narrative that unfolds the fall and the redemption of society, its self-knowledge and its self-love" (39). This "social and epistemological 'fall'," O'Donovan suggests, is not a matter of falling into "plural consciousness as such." Otherwise, the fall devolves into a problem of ontology, of the fall of unity into plurality, of difference - a fall that supposes the god of Neoplatonism, rather than the Trinity of Christian faith.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel suggests instead that plurality, rather than lying at the heart of evil, is in fact a curb on evil's effects. The fall into sin that the Scriptures narrate is not one of unity into plurality, but of "false pretension to achieve the perspective of God," seizing upon a "discrimination to which human beings must come," but claiming rights to that discrimination before it was granted by grace (40-1). Thus, human idolatry seeks to confine God into its own structures so that society's traditions, rather than forming "a window through which its member see the world," instead becomes "a screen which blocks out what is most worth seeing" (41).

What is necessary, then, is the patience of a faith that lives within an eschatological tension, in a hope for a universal society that relativizes our present social identities as part of the temporal order that continually passes away. Without this vision of the eschatological reign of God, we cannot see our communities and social forms "in sober clarity, as grounds neither of boasting nor shame" (44). And this eschatological vision, and the present ascesis it engenders, is to be found by becoming "actual members of a real community," that is, the church "constituted by the real and present image of God as uniquely lord, and the real and present image of mankind as subject uniquely to God" (44).

And such a community only comes into being through "Jesus Christ, very God and very man."

19 October 2005

haight: postscript

After the various presentations of each panel member regarding Haight's book there was some discussion. I didn't take notes so I can't reproduce that discussion, but I do recall some of the points that were made.

One panelist rightly noted that Haight's concerns are parallel to those of liberation theology, which begins in the real lived human experience of suffering, poverty, war, and so on. A christology "from below," he suggested, can address those issues in a way that traditional christologies do not, particularly with regard to the value of human life, the historical patterns of human suffering, and the question of the fundamental goodness or evil of humanity.

I responded to this a bit, suggesting that these are indeed important concerns and we do need to look at each of the various accounts of Jesus in the Gospels and Epistles on their own terms, proceeding often "from below." Nonetheless, I can hardly think of a more ringing affirmation of the value of human life than the idea that the Second Person of the Trinity incarnated himself as a human being, died to save us from our sins, and that his resurrected humanity remains forever united to his divinity, seated at the right hand of God. Moreover, it is the historicity of the resurrection that gives us hope to struggle against and overcome the historical patterns of human suffering, rather than retreating into a realm a transcendental subjectivity that downplays the historical character of the faith.

One might also note with regard to christology "from below" vs. "from above" that theology and philosophy have often distinguished between an ontological order and a pedagogical or gnoseological order. That is to say, even if we learn who Jesus Christ is through his lived actions, words, death, and resurrection as communicated to us in narrative form by the Gospel writers, once we proceed through those considerations from below and discern the identity of Jesus as the eternal Son, we can then construct a christology that proceeds "from above," ontologically speaking, all the while never leaving behind the particularity of the crucified man of Nazareth.

Another matter that became evident in the discussion was that Haight is clearly uncomfortable with the notion that there are eternally three "persons" within the life of the one God. While he seems to admit the notion of a pre-existent Logos and that this Logos was present and mediated by the life of Jesus, he does not want biblical reflections upon the life of Jesus to entail that the person of Jesus had somehow pre-existed eternally within the life of God or that the Logos was a "person" apart from the life of Jesus. Thus Haight seems troubled by the historic language of Nicaea and Chalcedon that posit three "hupostases" within the single "ousia" of God, so that Haight himself tends towards a kind of Sabellianism. My one colleague from the religion department seemed highly sympathetic to these concerns.

I can certainly sympathize with the idea that our modernistic concept of "person" might not be entirely suited for trinitarian doctrine (Barth raises a similar concern, as I recall). On the other hand, I suggested, the trinitarian doctrine of Nicaea and Chalcedon is perhaps the single most important contribution of Christian theology to western thought. The idea that God within himself eternally exists as "being in communion" - a communion of love, communication, mutuality, and so on, between three centers of existence or whatever you want to call them - this idea is mind-bogglingly important. It has weighty implications for what it means for human beings to exist in the image of God as persons in community, and, indeed, undergirds the development of the western, Christian sense of "personhood" as such. Thus, I can't see revising Nicaea and Chalcedon on this matter without reaping significant consequences.

Various matters were also discussed, including an conversation on the matter of the fundamental historicity of the Gospel account, though the points above are the ones that I responded to and which struck me as central issues for Haight's whole approach.

300 million

Over at barlowfarms, Jonathan raises the interesting question of what one might do with $300 million dollars if, say, a friend gave you a Powerball ticket as a gift and you won. Here's some of my list. To begin:

[1] Give 10% to the church.

[2] Figure out how much will be taken by the taxman and send it to them.

[3] Invest enough in interest bearing accounts so that the interest payments will maintain my income at its present level + 20% or thereabouts, with a likelihood of steady increase that is commensurate with increasing living costs. This would also take care of retirement.

With the remaining money, I'd attempt the following:

[4] Look into various charities in some the world's most needy areas, particularly where there are established, reputable Christian ministries to use the funds (e.g., Sudan, Uganda, India).

[5] Endow a chair at Westminster Theological Seminary in Reformed liturgics.

[6] Travel to places I've always wanted to visit or revisit: Tuscany, Geneva, the UK, Ireland, Bangalore, the American West, and so on.

[7] Purchase at least one of the old historic churches in Philadelphia that currently sits empty and unused, fix it up, and donate it to a church plant.

[8] Regularly buy season tickets to music and arts venues in Philadelphia and New York.

[9] Buy a house in the Poconos, within a few hours of Philadelphia and New York, to develop into a Christian retreat and study center, particularly aimed at college students, graduate students, and junior faculty.

[10] Do all the things Laurel would like done around the house, including a full kitchen remodeling, adding a dishwasher, and so on.

Those are just a few ideas and I could probably be persuaded towards other things. What would you do? Comment here, at barlowfarms, or on your own blog.

18 October 2005

haight's jesus discussion

Today was a faculty panel discussion regarding Jesus: Symbol of God, by Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight. I only finished reading the book over the weekend and only started writing up some comments last night. I ended up staying awake until a bit after midnight trying to work on my comments and spent my office hours today finishing them up.

The past week has be unusually busy (as I expect this week will also be), so my patience level is probably somewhat attenuated. Nonetheless, I hope the remarks I made regarding Haight were fair and accurate, even if they were at times rather pointed. Also note that these remarks were given in a context in which those more supportive of Haight had ample opportunity for response, defense, and clarification.

Here are my notes:

Roger Haight, Jesus: Symbol of God


When this panel discussion was proposed, as the token Protestant, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting myself into. While I’ve read widely enough in New Testament studies, christology, and historical theology, I hadn’t heard of Roger Haight and was unaware of the controversy surrounding his book on Jesus.

Indeed, it wasn’t until I was well into Haight’s lengthy book and found myself increasingly puzzled by his methods and claims that I finally Googled his name and discovered some of the hullabaloo that the book has stirred up. And while I’ve seen numerous reviews that describe the book variously as “rich,” “magisterial,” “wonderful,” “thoughtful,” and “inspiring,” I find it difficult to see what such reviewers find so attractive about Haight's hefty tome.

As far as I can see, Haight’s presentation of New Testament christology isn’t an especially plausible interpretation of what the New Testament actually says about the person of Jesus. Rather, it strikes me more as a clever exercise in theological gymnastics by an individual who finds himself unable to believe the Gospel as that has traditionally been understood.

At times it seems that Haight seeks to console himself with what often come across to me at least as spiritual platitudes about the concern and compassion of God - all very true, of course, but lacking the untamed edge of the biblical God worshiped in the splendor of holiness by Israel and by Jesus. And what Haight’s book lacks in theological depth of insight is only compounded by English prose that I found difficult to slog through given its persistent redundancies and, at times, seemingly vacuous assertions.

So far, however, my remarks might be regarded as merely unfounded bluster on the part of an evidently narrow-minded dogmatist. Thus, allow me to move on to some more detailed remarks.

Questions of general method

In a tome of this length that, to my mind, evidences so many problems, one scarcely knows where to begin, but I will begin nonetheless by looking at a few of Haight’s methodological suggestions.

Some of his suggestions are not, in themselves, at first blush necessarily inimical to useful and orthodox theological reflection upon Jesus Christ. Haight is correct to emphasize the practical implications of the gospel for the realities of human life. Haight is also correct to draw attention to the ongoing necessity to contextualize theology for contemporary audiences. But as Haight goes on to fill in the details and to deploy and apply his methodological considerations, problems begin to surface.

Haight, for instance, makes a number of remarks regarding the nature of “religion” and “religious experience.” The way in which he does so, however, simply assumes the universal phenomenon of “religion,” conceived in such a way that we can discuss and draw generalizations about it, quite apart from the specific content of particular systems of belief and practice as those are embedded and embodied within particular traditions, narratives, rituals, and so on.

Likewise, Haight wants to make what seems a fairly sharp distinction between “faith” (on one hand) and “belief” (on the other), where “faith” refers to some kind of underlying and unspecifiable religious attitude or experience which may, in turn, generate “beliefs,” but is somehow prior to and unconstrained by belief, so that the putatively same faith-experience may give rise to a range of incommensurate beliefs or systems of belief. But this is problematic in that it assumes that there is an identifiable aspect to human experience that we can isolate and meaningfully discuss apart from any specific propositional content or about which some beliefs might be necessarily more fitting while others are excluded.

And when Haight does begin to fill in the details of his vague notions of the “religious” or “faith,” he speaks of it as a “universal form of human experience” that involves “an awareness of and loyalty to an ultimate or transcendent reality” and is tied to the experience of “salvation.” But this is pure assertion and a highly debatable one at that.

First, Haight’s assertion would seem to run afoul of the actual lived experience of various world religions. I would think that most Buddhists, for example, would not recognize Haight’s description as fitting their own experience, which, as I understand it, does not involve that kind of faith in a transcendent reality, let alone a notion of “salvation” of the sort that Haight seems to assume. And this is to say nothing of the various other forms of religious belief and expression that exist or have existed within human experience, from animism and polytheism to ancestor worship and forms of filial piety.

Second, even within the bounds of Christian theological reflection, Haight’s approach here, while consonant with that of Karl Rahner, would find significant opposition in theologians such as Karl Barth (among Protestants) or Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar (among Catholics). Some theologians, from Schleiermacher to Rahner, have been content to situate theology and Christian revelation as a particular instance within a universal class of experiences that can be called “religious” or within a generalized account of human consciousness of the transcendent, placing thereby distinctively Christian claims squarely within the horizon of human expectation.

Other theologians, however, have insisted that a consistently Christian account of theology, revelation, spiritual experience, and so on must proceed from the concrete particularities of Christian revelation in Christ and its unique claims, noting how the gospel challenges and hyper-fulfills our human expectations in entirely unexpected ways.

Haight’s account, therefore, makes its starting point within a metaphysics of human subjectivity that is, in the first instance, purely general, apparently ahistorical, and universal for each individual. While Haight, like Rahner before him, does go on to qualify all this with a discussion of history, events, texts, human community, and so, this subsequent discussion often has the appearance of supplementing an account that is already largely complete in itself. As such, the social nature of the Christian faith, its embeddedness within narrative, typology, and ritual, and, its groundedness in particular historical events, is something that Haight fits into an already essentially complete account of the individual subject and the a priori structure of human knowledge for any given person.

The end result is that Haight appears manifestly uncomfortable with fully committing grace and salvation into the hands of historical events in their concreteness, incommensurability, and - especially in the case of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - their unexpectedness and unpredictability. The person of Jesus and events of the gospel are reduced by Haight to mere symbols and ciphers of a universal transcendence that has always been there all along. Rather than wonder, worship, and adoration, the appearance of this Jesus under these conditions can only elicit a yawn.

Third, despite Haight’s repeated refrain about the necessity of speaking to supposedly “postmodern” people, Haight’s own approach here strikes me as insufficiently postmodern. A genuinely postmodern account would harbor much darker suspicions about the notion of a universal religious consciousness, noting how such an idea is itself historically situated and conditioned by the development of post-Kantian philosophy, phenomenology, and existentialism. Indeed, as a number of thinkers have argued, the very notion of “the religious,” as it is discussed by fellows such as Haight, is a relative newcomer on stage of history, emergent with the dissolution of the medieval synthesis in the wake of late nominalism and complicit with the rise of modernist categories of thought and the isolation of an identifiable realm of secularity.

Despite Haight’s self-proclaimed taking up of the postmodern mantle, his own prophetic voice makes an uncertain sound. While Haight champions the postmodern need for a critical and historicized consciousness, Haight himself remains seemingly oblivious and unreflective about the contingent and historically situated nature of his own methods and practices as a theologian.

Haight, of course, rightly notes that classical christological formulations, in order to communicate effectively to contemporary people and culture, will need to be re-expressed and re-interpreted in language that communicates more clearly to those around us. Nevertheless, his supposed concern for a “postmodern” perspective sounds to me little different from an all-too-modernist liberalism of the sort that suggests people who live in a world of electric lightbulbs simply find it impossible to believe in miracles.

In addition, despite Haight's suggestions to the contrary, it is hardly the case that religious pluralism is a problem that newly faces the Christian church. While it is true that the past several centuries have brought an end to the hegemony of European Christendom, the original context in which the Christian gospel was proclaimed in late antiquity was one that manifested a religious pluralism and relativism that would rival the experience of any modern or postmodern person.

Another aspect of Haight’s methodology is his understanding of “symbol.” Given the centrality of this notion for his overall argument and, indeed, its prominent place in the title of the book, one would expect a serious and extended discussion of the nature of symbols within the Christian faith. Unfortunately, Haight seems set on disappointing the reader and fails to give a defensible account of the nature of “symbol,” instead simply repeating that notion that symbols point to transcendent realities that remain “other” than the symbol itself.

Haight goes on to use this understanding of symbol to eviscerate the most central events of the gospels of historical content, maintaining for instance that the resurrection of Jesus is a symbol of the transcendent reality that Jesus is alive with God, a claim that Haight is ever so careful to disentangle from thorny historical questions involving empty tombs, resuscitated corpses, bodily appearances of the resurrected Jesus, and so on - not to mention Second Temple Jewish expectations and language about the eschatological resurrection of the dead. Apparently, for Haight, none of these things can really impinge upon our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection since the resurrection, after all, is a “symbol.”

In light of such a wholesale re-casting of orthodox Christian teaching, one might hope for a more vigorous defense of such understandings of the symbolic. Such an account of symbol, after all, seems susceptible to a number of relatively common criticisms.

First, returning to the sorts of comments I have already made, why should we assume a naturalistic ontology that defines the symbolic by reference to its place within a natural field of semiotic activity. To do this, results in treating the symbolic events and texts of salvation history as mere instances within the larger and more general class of symbols.

But such an assumption ends up misconstruing the nature of the symbolic within the divine economy of salvation, supposing that a naturalistic and philosophical understanding of symbol is somehow more basic than a theological understanding of these particular symbols, within this concrete historical context, as mediations of this God and his salvation.

Second, Haight’s approach here indicates a deficient understanding of creation and providence and the place of salvation history in the effecting of God’s redemptive plan. Haight’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, his notion of the “transcendence” of God is one that remains un-integrated with a proper notion of God’s immanence as creator and sustainer of all things, including history, time, culture, and language.

God’s operation in the world and his self-disclosure and self-communication within the world is not one that remains external and extrinsic to the created world. On the contrary, symbolic mediations of the divine participate in that which they reveal and thus the actual events and patterns of sacred history cannot be construed as so much window-dressing on a salvation event that, in the end, occurs elsewhere in some realm of transcendence.

That is to say, symbols within the Christian economy surely function in a way that proceeds through the symbol to a reality that the symbolic mediation itself, as a gift of grace, partly constitutes and makes present. Haight’s comments at this point sound much more like the non capax of Ulrich Zwingli than the thoughts of a Catholic theologian.

To put this another way, Haight seems to lack a working familiarity with the doctrine of analogy, rooted in the doctrines of creation and Trinity, as that has informed Christian ontology for centuries. On such a view, the whole created order, created in and through the eternal Word and Image of the Father, by the power of the Spirit, is always already a disclosure of the divine and thus apt and capacious for even greater graciously-given measures of analogical disclosure.

On such a view, events, history, signs, ritual, thought, language, and indeed, the human imagination, are not entirely closed to a transcendent realm where they cannot follow, but are created in and through the eternal Word and Image of the Father for the very purpose of sharing in the life of God.

Third, in light of these remarks, it seems to me that a more genuinely catholic understanding would view events within salvation history and the social reality of the church, not merely as mediating structures by which a transcendent salvation lying elsewhere is encountered. Rather, as Henri de Lubac has insisted, salvation is inherently historical and social, so that salvation history and the church not only mediate salvation, but are also the very fabric and goal of salvation.

In terms of salvation in history, de Lubac situates salvation historically in relation to human events that are, at the same time, divine actions in the world. Building upon Blondel, de Lubac’s conception of the relation between nature and grace sees human action as the event of desiring God and accepting grace, not as something that is universally present alongside each action, but as the very particularity of action itself.

As such, human persons experience salvation in that historical particularity insofar as their actions are connected to the particular historical event of Christ. Events of salvation history cannot, therefore, be re-envisioned and de-historicized without changing the character of salvation itself (see his Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man).

One could critique Haight’s methodology for the better part of a day, however, so allow me to move on to some more specific difficulties.

Specific difficulties

After wading through Haight’s introductory remarks regarding methodology, I had hoped that his grappling with the actual text of the New Testament might provide something more substantive.

While his reflections upon the Gospels do provide some interesting insights, they remain, on the whole, an exercise in which the all-too-easily understood faith of the earliest church, becomes more and more eclipsed by a complex hermeneutical apparatus designed, it seems, to make that faith easier for contemporary people to believe. But as I noted in my opening remarks, such an easily accepted faith, suited to modern sensibilities, comes at the cost of a far more unbelievable interpretation of the New Testament.

And Haight gives no justification for such a procedure except his own unargued prejudice about what postmodern people might find possible or impossible to believe. Consider, for instance, his argument on page 124 in which he objects to the attempts of Wolfhart Pannenberg and Nicholas Lash to maintain the essentially historical and factual nature of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. What is Haight’s argument here? It seems to be the following:
What occurred in the resurrection of Jesus pertains to another order of reality that transcends this world because it is God’s realm...being in “God’s sphere” implies transcending this world in a way that human imagination cannot follow. (124)
That is to say, Haight simply assumes and asserts the kind of problematic ontology that I have mentioned already in which the immanent creation is external and extrinsic to the transcendent.

Moreover, he assumes that the human imagination, despite being created by God, in God's own image, and directed towards God as its end, is nonetheless unsuited to thinking about the transcendent. Haight then turns this assumption into an argument against Pannenberg and Lash, suggesting that their approach “tends too strongly to associate the resurrection with the empirical, making it a this-world event, and subject to an imaginative construal.” He adds, “Such historicizing undermines the fundamental nature of the resurrection as a transcendent object of faith” (124).

This sort of argument comes across to me as simply bald assertion on the part of someone who, finding himself unable to believe in the historicity of the resurrection, still wishes to cling to the vestiges and language of Christian faith. There might be all sorts of reasons for doubting the historicity of the resurrection based on textual and historical considerations, but this kind of a priori discounting of the resurrection as a historical event is unhelpful and unreasonable.

I’m also puzzled by Haight’s biblical reflections which, in their footnotes, appear to demonstrate a wide familiarity with contemporary biblical studies, both Catholic and Protestant: Luke Timothy Johnson, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier, James Dunn, E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, and so on. But the actual text of Haight’s book seldom seems to engage the lines of argument that these authors outline and, more often than not, take their conclusions in directions very different from what these authors would like. Indeed, Haight synthesizes together very disparate perspectives.

This, of course, is not a problem in itself, but it is troubling that Haight seldom notifies the reader that this is, in fact, what he is doing. A reader could too easily come away with the (often mistaken) impression that these authors might endorse Haight's methods or conclusions.

One might also criticize what sometimes seems to be a lack of theological imagination on Haight’s part. For instance, when negotiating the issue of Jesus’ relation to God (in this context, the God of Israel), Haight seems caught between what one might see as [a] more ontological categories regarding divinity, which he finds problematic from the standpoint of the New Testament, and [b] more functional approaches to divinity, which can place Jesus in relation to God as a mediation of God’s presence, but would seem to fall short of the kinds of dogmatic conclusions to which the church arrived in the early councils.

At this juncture, Haight’s work might have been helped by the thought of New Testament scholars such as Richard Bauckham and Tom Wright who suggest a middle way between ontological and functional approaches using the category of God’s identity.

A number of other specific points might be raised, but I will mention only one more and leave the rest for the discussion that will follow. Haight notes that traditional discussions of christology have had a tendency to privilege John's Gospel over the synoptic traditions in the formulation of christological dogma, particularly the pre-existence of Jesus as the eternal Logos. This, of course, is true and Haight is certainly correct to emphasize the necessity of taking each Gospel on its own terms (though I find his treatments of the individual Gospels rather superficial at times and insufficiently reflective on a literary and theological level).

Haight, however, then goes on to assert that the Gospel presents us not merely with christological pluralism, but also with christologies that are in tension or even contradiction. Nonetheless, Haight never does anything to demonstrate this claim beyond noting that it is “obvious.” I remain unpersuaded.

Even if we may speak of christological pluralism within the New Testament, it is a distinct question whether or not this pluralism entails contradiction rather than, say, each christological perspective making its own contribution to an overall theological account of the person of Jesus. Besides, if the Johannine christology is the last that the New Testament gives us (as Haight himself, among many others, suggests), might it not rightly have a crowning (though not dominating) role in our christological formulations as the most mature reflection upon the person of Jesus Christ that the Christian canon affords us?


In the end, therefore, it seems to me that Haight is asking us to exchange the rich and hearty fare of Christian orthodoxy for the barely warmed over, thin gruel of 1970s Protestant liberalism. But such liberalism didn’t do much for Protestantism, leaving us languishing in a state of spiritual emaciation. One would hope that in these days of Protestant post-liberalism, Catholic theologians would learn from our mistakes, rather than merely repeating them 30 years too late.

Allow me to end with a few words from Roger Haight’s fellow Jesuit theologian, Edward Oakes, who, in the conclusion of an essay on the state of contemporary theology, writes:
…these versions of “Christianity” teach us that a little bit of the gospel is more damaging than would be forthright rejection of the whole package. Watered-down Christianity has only given us absurd hopes, the vision of a non-existent future, lukewarm zeal, a narcissistic ethic, incantatory theology, invented grievances…and preaching in which, in Dante’s harsh words, “sheep leave church, having been fed on wind.” No wonder T.S. Eliot tartly observed, “We know too much, and are convinced of too little. Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion.” (from "Reconciling Judas: Evangelizing the Theologians")

16 October 2005

pentecost 22

Almighty and ever-living God,
increase in us your gift of faith,
that forsaking what lies behind
and reaching out to what is before,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

15 October 2005


Since I've not blogged much of anything this week, I though I might blog a random list of items.

random link: from National Geographic Traveler online magazine, "Philadelphia: The Next Great City."

random quotation: Aristotle (Greek philosopher, 384-322 BC), "It is the mark of an educated mind to be to able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

random picture: Claire from a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, playing in the back garden, still wearing her church dress:

random book: The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau, from the incisive French Christian theorist, applying the insights of philosophy and cultural studies questions of faithful praxis in the contemporary world.

random film: The wonderful Danish film Italiensk for begyndere, part of Dogme 95 productions, which have a very peculiar set of strict rules about filmmaking, which nonetheless seem to have produced some very good films.

random theology link: Think Tank: generous orthodoxy in the academy, where the emergent church meets serious academia in what looks like a fruitful conversation.

random upcoming event: John Milbank speaking on "Theurgy, Russian Orthodoxy, and the New Horizons of Theology," 18 November 2005, 7pm, in Philadelphia at the Marriott hotel, prior to the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting.

13 October 2005


I've not blogged anything much this week because I'm up to my eyeballs in grading (interspersed with various meetings and so forth). I hope to have a large chunk of the grading completed by tomorrow, which will free me up a bit.

In the meantime, I'll note a new blog, religiocity, that looks like it should be interesting.

09 October 2005

francesco d'assisi

For many Christian traditions, this past Tuesday, 4 October, was a day set aside to commemorate the great medieval saint, Francis of Assisi.

So great was Francis' influence and piety, that he continued to hold a significant place in the religious imagination, even within the churches of the Reformation. While the Lutheran confessions criticized various aspects of later Franciscan theology, they held up Francis himself as among the "holy Fathers" (along with Anthony, Bernard, and Dominic) who "believed that through faith they were accounted righteous and had a gracious God because of Christ, not because of their own spiritual exercises" (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4; see also Article 27).

Francis was born in the town of Assisi around 1181, the son of a prosperous merchant, Piero Bernardone. The rest of his life story is fairly well known: his vision of Christ calling him to serve the church, his eventual renunciation of his possessions and inheritance before the bishop, his mission to preach the Gospel to the poor, the growth of his little band of brothers, his pilgrimage and visit with the Sultan during the crusades, his devotion to the goodness of God's creation, and so on. The brothers were later joined in ministry by Chiara Favarone (Clare of Assisi) and their service of teaching and mercy to the poor began to grow into more organized religious "orders."

As the order grew into the thousands, so also grew the problems, confusions, and tensions that attend the growth of any organization, particularly one so rooted the very personal and idiosyncratic vocation of a few men and women. Moreover, since the time of Francis' initial calling, he lacked any kind of continued affirmation of that call, except through the eventual approbation of church authorities. Thus Francis was beset by various doubts, worried a great deal about the character of the order as it grew and evolved, and at times found himself on the edge of despair regarding whether he had rightly heard and followed God's call.

It was in this context of spiritual depression and doubt, as well as ongoing physical illness and weakness, that Francis experienced a vision of the crucified Jesus and found himself able to confess quite literally, in the words of Paul, "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). I've never been quite sure what to make of Francis' stigmata, though I suspect that even if it were a psycho-somatic manifestation resulting from profound and intense meditation upon the sufferings of Jesus, there is no reason we should necessarily discount such a manifestation as also a divine gift of grace, suited to Francis' own temperament and needs.

Whatever the case, the wounds appeared late in his life, only two years prior to Francis' death - two years marked by significant illness, physical suffering, and the gradual loss of his sight. Francis never made a public spectacle of the marks or of his other sufferings, but was cared for lovingly by Clare. During his last months Francis wrote his "Canticle of Brother Sun" and remained in prayer until he, at last, called for his close circle of brothers, whom he instructed to lay him naked upon the "naked earth" and thus he fell into the embrace of our dear sister, bodily death.

Francis' death was, thereby, marked with the same simplicity and boldness with which he had lived his life. Thomas of Celano, his first biographer, writes that Francis "had a strong, sweet, lyrical, and clear voice while his manner of speaking could be peaceful yet fiery and direct." Though Francis' ministry was often prophetic in character, he delivered his message without bitterness and backed it up with the piety of his life, a life lived, it seems, with an intensity and directness rather distinct from the sentimentality and piety that has sometimes grown up around his memory.

My own affection for the holy man of Assisi probably dates from high school, when I first read G.K. Chesterton's beautifully written and classic account of Francis' life and times. Since then I've read various sources, ranging from the first and second lives of Francis by Thomas of Celano, dating from the 13th century, up to Julien Green's well-written biography, God's Fool (Harper & Row 1985), among others. There are, of course, various film versions of Francis' life as well, from the overly-pious 1961 Francis of Assisi (based on the Louis De Wohl novel) to Zeferelli's hippy-dippy 1972 Brother Sun, Sister Moon (which nonetheless has its charms) and the more recent, gritty and historically realistic Francesco (from 1989, starring Mickey Rourke of all people).

My friendship and acquaintance over the years with several Franciscans has also fed my interest in the life of the saint who has inspired so much devotion to Jesus Christ, lived out in faith-filled acts of mercy toward those in spiritual and physical need. While I can't claim to fully understand the enigmatic, powerful, moving, and at times frustrating man of Assisi, I do continue to find his life provocative and oddly captivating.

pentecost 21

Almighty God,
in our baptism
you adopted us for your own.
Quicken your Spirit within us,
that we, being renewed both in body and mind,
may worship you in sincerity and truth
and serve you with thankfulness of heart;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

06 October 2005

giving the gospel

While my mother probably finished her Christmas shopping back in July, most of us still have some gifts to pick out for friends and family.

One option for gift-giving arrived in our mailslot today: the gift catalog for Harvest of Hope, sponsored by Partners International, a global ministry that works to create and grow communities of Christian witness in partnership with God’s people in the least Christian regions of the world. In many ways, Harvest of Hope is similar to Heifer International, except that it is an explicitly Christian ministry that deliberately partners with indigenous church leaders throughout the world.

And so, with the Harvest of Hope catalog in hand (or through their online catalog), you can add various gifts to your Christmas list: clean water for a family in Bangledesh, a piglet for a poor family in China, training for a church planter in Indonesia, Bible stories for children in Turkey, prenatal and follow-up care in Senegal, or an ox and plow for some Sudanese villagers. You can also purchase gift certificates to give to others to enable them to choose how they would like to help Christians in the developing world. There are also lower cost selections that are designed to involve kids in helping others and learning about what God is doing in his church around the world.

Of course, there are many other ways of giving to global missions, perhaps through your own church or wider communion, and there are various other organizations who are engaged in active indigenous ministry. But it seems that Harvest of Hope is a creative way for Christians to use the ease of catalog and online shopping for furthering of Christ's kingdom.

CGO brings attention to sudan

All this week, Common Grounds Online has been drawing attention to the plight of of Sudan and the hope that the Gospel is bringing to this war-ravaged nation. Today's contribution comes from Mark Traphagen of the blog "Sacred Journey." The whole series is worth reading.

05 October 2005

boersma: addendum

I picked up Hans Boersma's book on atonement theology again and ran across a footnote in which he does explicitly make some appropriate distinctions about the place of violence in a fallen world as opposed to its embeddedness created finitude as such. But I still find his overall account a bit muddled on the topic and it doesn't seem to me that he really gets any mileage out of the distinction on the level of ontology. I did, however, want to note that he does, in fact, note the distinction.

04 October 2005

reformed african-americans

This looks interesting: Reformed Blacks of America. Given the sometimes mixed history of Reformed and Presbyterian churches in America in relation to the African-American community, it is good to see a growing presence of blacks in Reformed churches.

Among the churches listed at this website is Christ Liberation Fellowship (CLF) here in Philadelphia, a church that is a daughter congregation to the church where we are members. CLF is pastored by the Rev. Lance Lewis, who my wife thinks is "the bee's knees" (her wording), starting from the time she attended a Sunday School class he co-led with Kevin Smith (who now pastors Mt. Zion Covenant Church outside of DC). Lance's ministry was one of the main reasons Laurel remained at Tenth, particularly his way of taking a Reformed understanding of Scripture and putting into real lived practice.

Xavier Pickett who co-founded the "Reformed Blacks of America" organization and website is apparently a seminary intern, attending Westminster Seminary, and a theology team ministry leader at Christ Liberation Fellowship.

This website also puts me in mind of a book we added to the church library in the past year or so, entitled Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African-American Christian Experience by Anthony J. Carter (P&R 2003). Carter is the founder of Cyrene Ministries, which began as the Black Alliance for Reformed Theology and exists to carry the doctrines of grace as understood within the Reformed tradition into African-American cultural contexts. I've only skimmed over the book before we added to the library, but it came highly recommended and we've received positive feedback from those who have borrowed and read it. Carter has a blog called "Non Nobis Domine."

I look forward to seeing the ongoing fruits of these exciting ministries.

03 October 2005

webster on dogma

Some more from John Webster's Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge 2003).

Webster's account of the doctrine of Scripture is frankly dogmatic. He notes in his introduction that such an approach isn't very popular these days, especially inasmuch as the doctrine of Scripture is so often subsumed under cultural and religious studies, understanding Holy Scripture to be "an extension of the term 'scripture,' and refers not to properties which the biblical canon has by virtue of its relation to God's communicative activity, but to the activities of human agents in constituting a cultural and religious world" (1).

This doesn't mean that Webster in any sense downplays the humanity of Scripture, but his account remains theological in character, taking stock of the human in light of the doctrines of creation and providence, as already the sphere of divine, trinitarian action. Webster is insistent that the language by which we sketch out what Scripture is must be the "language of the triune God's saving and revelatory action" (1). As an exercise in dogmatics, it cannot allow the concept of Scripture "to be folded into the more general category of 'scripture'," but instead seeks "to maximise the difference between the two and thereby to resist the subordination of Holy Scripture to cultural poetics" (2).

Thus, later in his exposition, Webster points out the difficulties with both modern critical biblical scholarship and modern philosophical-theological hermeneutics, suggesting that both are primarily theological difficulties, rooted in a naturalistic ontology that assumes that "a text's being is defined by reference to its occupation of a space in a natural field of communicative activity" (29). In this way, the biblical writings end up being treated as "instances of the nautral class of texts," but this assumption is to be resisted, according to Webster.

Such an assumption misconstrues the text, Webster suggests, reading it wholly in terms of "textual clues" from which one can reconstruct the historical matrix out of which the text emerged, while failing to read the text as something that involves God's address of the hearer or reader. This is a theological error, Webster asserts, that assumes a "natural" understanding of the text "is more basic than an understanding of the text as 'scripture'," to wit, as "this text - sanctified, that is, Spirit-generated and preserved - in this field of action - the communicative economy of God's merciful friendship with lost creatures" (29).

The result of approaching the doctrine of Scripture theologically, Webster notes, is a "dogmatic ontology" of Scripture, "an account of what Holy Scripture is in the saving economy of God's loving and regenerative self-communication" (2).

In light of Webster's insistence upon dogmatic theology, it is interesting to note the way in which he frames such theology in relation to Scripture. He writes,

It is, therefore, of prime importance to avoid construing dogmatics as a set of improvements upon Scripture. The relative necessity of the theoretical language of dogmatics should not blind us to the fact that it is exposed to the "heresy of paraphrase" - the assumption that theology, once formulated, effectively replaces the more rudimentary language forms of the Bible. It is fatally easy to prefer the relatively clean lines of doctrine to the much less manageable, untheorised material of the Bible. But once we begin to do that, doctrine quickly becomes a way of easing ourselves of some permanently troubling tracts of Christian language: in effect, the rhetoric of dogma can serve to de-eschatologise the church's apprehension of the gospel. (130)

Webster goes on to suggest that our understanding of dogmatic theology must account for it as something "much more light-weight, low-level, and approximate, something therefore less likely to compete with or displace Scripture" (130). Thus dogmatics must always be characterized by "modesty and transparency" and function as "a kind of gloss on Scripture" (130). In this light dogmatic theology must remain "self-effacing" and allow its function to be "exhausted in the role it plays vis-a-vis Scripture" (131).

All of this seems to me very much on track and serves as a helpful reminder to those of us who labor primarily in the area of dogmatic or systematic theology.

02 October 2005

secondary causes

Laurel had a birthday this past week, so Claire and I went shopping for some presents back on Monday, heading to a nearby department store's jewelry section. Three year olds have rather unusual taste in necklaces, but with a bit of guidance Claire and I settled on a selection that turned out to match one of Laurel's blouses perfectly.

After our shopping trip we got in the car to return home. A voice from the backseat pipes up, "Where are we going now, Daddy?"


"Why are we going home?" We're in the midst of an extended "why" phase of development. Lots of conversations lately, after going on for a while, have ended with either "because God made it that way" or some kind of technical explanation that leaves Claire wanting to the change the topic.

"Well," I reply, "we finished shopping for what we came to shop for, so I thought we'd head home. Besides, it's getting close to your bedtime."

"I don't want to go home," Claire says as we pull out of the parking lot.

Foolishly, I respond, "Where do want to go then?"

"Hmmm," she ponders. "Let's go to Manayunk. I want to stop by Starbucks and get a vanilla milk."

Figures. We were out at the playground down on the canal a year ago and ran out of juice, so I took Claire to the nearby Starbucks where we found some very nice, all natural, organic vanilla milk. Better yet, there's a cute cow cartoon on the juicebox and a collapsible straw.

Ever since then, Claire's been a loyal Starbucks customer.

On the winding drive down the hill towards Manayunk the sky gets darker. Night is nearing, but storm clouds had also been gathering the better part of the afternoon. "Looks like it's going to rain," I note.

"God makes the rain fall," Claire observes from the pulpit of her carseat.

"...on the just and the unjust," I add with a grin.

"What's 'just' mean, Daddy?" Not the question to ask when Daddy's been teaching Plato's Republic for the past week.

"Hmm. Many people have asked that question, Claire, and have given many different answers." I see a quizzical expression in the rearview mirror. "God is just," I continue, "in that he is perfectly good and yet seeks and saves those who trust him."

We talk about justice and trusting God and being part of God's family, all as I park the car. Rain starts to fall while I rummage through my pocket for some change for the meter.

"Mommy has an umbrella in the trunk," Claire suggests. "Can you get it?" I peer in the back window of our station wagon and, sure enough, there's an umbrella. Claire, of course, wants to hold it, leaving me out in the rain. We compromise with me carrying her across the street to Starbucks with her holding the umbrella.

A few minutes later we're sitting on stools at the counter in the front window of the coffee shop, looking out at the falling rain. There's a motorcycle parked in the space directly in front.

Claire sucks down some milk. "Did God make motorcycles?"

For a moment I'm tempted to say, "No, the devil did, but God overcomes evil with good through the miracle of organ donation." I manage, however, to stop myself. "Of course, sweetheart. God makes all things."

My little one evidently remembers these conversations. This morning (minus Laurel who was left at home in bed, sick with a cold) we pulled into a parking space, gathered our things, and headed down the couple of blocks towards church, passing a green Honda motorcycle.

"God makes green motorcycles too," Claire remarks.

"Yes, I see." I ponder a moment. "Claire, who makes cookies?"

Claire immediately rattles off, "Jesus makes cookies. And Jesus is God. So God makes cookies." Nice syllogism.

"Do you remember the cookies you sent Aunt Jane earlier this week?"

"Yes," she says. "We sent them to help make her feel better and show her we love her."

"That's right," I reply. "Now who made those cookies?"

Claire looks at me suspiciously, already recognizing a trick question when she hears it. "God made the cookies," she says finally after a significant pause, then adds quickly, "but Mommy and me made them too." Apparently, she's one step ahead of me.

"That's right," I say. "God makes everything, but God also uses what we call 'secondary causes.'" Hmm. Big word. How do I explain this? I continue, "Who made you, sweetheart?"

"God did."

"And who made Mommy?"

Again, "God did."

"And who made the flour and sugar and eggs and everything that went into the cookies?"

She sees where this is headed. "God did and God helped me and Mommy make the cookies."

"That right. You know what opposites are, right?" I ask.

"Yeah. Open and closed are opposites and light and dark are opposites."

"That's right, Claire. But God's making things and our making things aren't opposites. God makes things by making us and giving us the ability to make things and giving us the stuff to make them with. We call this 'concursus.'"

Okay, so I'm going to have a screwed up kid who uses words like "concursus" and "secondary causality" in 3 year old Sunday School and confuses her teachers. But if something's got a proper name, one might as well use it.

Claire looks ahead down the block for a bit as we near the church. Then she turns to me again. "So Jesus lets Aunt Jane know he loves her when Mommy and me send cookies."

She's got it.

pentecost 20

Almighty God,
you have built your Church
on the foundation of apostles and prophets,
Jesus Christ himself
being the chief cornerstone.
Join us together in unity of spirit
by their teaching,
that we may become a holy temple,
acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

01 October 2005

boersma on atonement, violence, hospitality

I recently finished reading Hans Boersma’s thoughtful and creative work of theology, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (BakerAcademic 2004). Boersma is associate professor of religious and worldview studies at Trinity Western University as well as the J.I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College.

The bulk of the book, as is evident from the title, focuses on soteriology. In particular, it is an attempt to develop a contemporary approach to atonement theology that is, on one hand, deeply rooted in patristic, medieval, and reformation traditions of interpretation, while, on the other hand, addressing that theology to a postmodern context in which notions of hospitality and forgiveness have been significantly problematized (Derrida, Levinas, Zizek).

The basic shape of Boersma’s theology of the atonement remains that of Irenaeus, rooted in a notion of Christ’s recapitulation of salvation history in his own person, an approach that Boersma deepens and enriches by drawing upon the resources of contemporary biblical theology (e.g., Jesus taking up the vocation of Israel). Within this recapitulation motif, Boersma situates other approaches to the atonement: Abelard’s moral influence theory, Girard’s insights regarding mimesis, Aulen’s theme of Christus Victor, as well as an extended defense, re-situation, and development of the Anselmian paradigm of penal substitution.

Boersma, however, embeds this Irenaean model within a larger thematic of “divine hospitality,” beginning with the well-known saying of Cyril of Jerusalem that God “stretched out his hands on the Cross that he might embrace the ends of the world” (Catechetical Lectures 7.89). Thus, it is in the cross that we most clearly see God’s hospitality thrown open wide for the salvation of humanity. If we grant, however, that “hospitality” is a theme, both biblical and patristic, under which we may rightly sum up a theology of the atonement, it is also a theme that raises problems in the face of contemporary thought, as well as from within Boersma’s own Reformed tradition.

In the remainder of this post I will make some brief remarks concerning Boersma's account with regard to postmodern thought, leaving his reflections upon the Reformed tradition for another occasion.

On the contemporary scene, the thought of figures such as Levinas and Derrida raise problematic questions about the very possibility of any “pure” hospitality, suggesting that any act of hospitality, however seemingly altruistic, is also covertly violent. Derrida in particular envisions an always deferred eschatology of hospitality, an unconditional openness to the messianic future. To avoid violence, pure hospitality would have to offer unlimited welcome without any conditions or horizon of expectation, even though this risks terrible danger since, as Derrida notes, “the newcomer may be a good person, or may be the devil.”

Derrida recognizes that such a radical hospitality is, nonetheless, impossible to realize, limited by the conditions of time, space, and order, and thus must remain an ever-receding goal, the indeterminancy of which transcends our ability to speak of it. Any present exercise of hospitality will, therefore, be accompanied by violence: a concrete particularization, a choice of one over another, a desire for return and reciprocity, an economy of exchange, an enforcement of boundaries, a running up against finite limitations.

Boersma sees value in Derrida's discussion, noting that it does reflect the limitations and conditions under which we often find ourselves attempting to act hospitably. As Boersma notes,

...with a potentially infinite number of strangers to which I am summoned to respond, and with only a limited amount of time available, I can only stretch myself so far. I end up making choices that limit and exclude. (35)

But whereas Derrida laments such limitations and the violence of exclusion, Boersma is not so sure that “this necessary violence is lamentable” or that an unattainably eschatological notion “pure hospitality” necessarily condemns all our present choices. Derrida's lament, one might suggest, bespeaks both an over-realized eschatology that expects too much in the present as well as a eschatological indeterminancy in which the absolute future is forever postponed.

But Derrida's legitimate insights raise a further difficulty, Boersma suggests, since it would seem that God himself is implicated in violence, not only given the nature of the world, but also in the sending of his Son to be handed over to violence upon the cross. Boersma suggests, however, that such divine violence “may well serve the interests of God's eschatological hospitality,” in which a kind of pure hospitality will be secured (37).

One nagging problem running through this whole discussion, of course, is the question of what is meant here by “violence.” As Derrida seems to use the term, building upon Levinas, “violence” refers not only to acts of harm, coercion, and injury directed against the other, but also to every form of exclusion, every choice of this over that, every occasion upon which we would find satisfaction in hospitality reciprocated, and so on. All of these realities would mar the purity of an absolute hospitality.

And here is where, to my mind, Boersma's own account is insufficiently clear and fails to make, what seem to me, to be some crucial distinctions. It is not clear to me, for instance, whether or not Boersma sees violence as inherent to the created order as such, as Derrida appears to believe. That is to say, Boersma pays too little attention to underlying questions of ontology, which in a Christian perspective, must necessarily frame any discussion of violence in light of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the goodness of creation.

If violence, in the end, is a function not merely of sin, but of created finitude, then it is difficult to see how it is possible for there to be the eschatological absolute hospitality that Boersma holds forth in hope and the attainment of which can justify some forms of temporal violence on the part of both God and humanity. Such a hospitality would seem impossible, unless of course the eschaton involves in some way transcending our very createdness, which is a notion that strikes me as equally problematic.

While Boersma interacts significantly with John Milbank and some other figures prominent in what is known as “Radical Orthodoxy,” he seems to fail to engage Milbank on this particular level of basic ontology. Milbank's suggestion is to remind us of the Christian teaching that God is a Trinity of Persons, existing eternally in peace both as absolute difference and perfect unity, as well as ongoing reciprocal gift and exchange. It is this eternal movement of love that is the transcendent ground for the creation of the world and which establishes that violence has no ontological purchase in the order of things as created.

If this is our starting point, then, it seems to me that a very important distinction must be maintained between the world as created in its original integrity and the world as it is marred and deprived by sin and its effects. Since the order of the world, even as created in time and with limitations, would have involved making choices, postponing actions, limiting offerings, and enjoying reciprocity and mutuality, then we cannot inscribe violence into the very nature of such things without thereby questioning the goodness of creation itself. Moreover, it is not clear to me that created limitations upon hospitality will ever give way to a “pure” hospitality, even eschatologically.

From this, no doubt, follow other distinctions and discernments about the practice of hospitality in a present world that is, in fact, broken by sin, as well as how far Christian love may exercise its own logic of redemptive “violence” in its adamant refusal of the world's way of violence and in its service to a divine hospitality in which evil is overcome by good. Boersma handles some of these latter issues rather well, particularly in relation to the violence of the cross and the Anselmian notion of penal substitution. But his apparent confusion on the issue of basic ontology leads to some areas in which his exposition is not wholly satisfying.

Nevertheless, the bulk of Boersma's atonement theology is extremely helpful. He asks all the right questions, while at the same addressing issues of contemporary concern with proper deference to the great traditions of Christian reflection upon that redeeming act of divine hospitality: the cross of Jesus Christ.